A Travellerspoint blog

Adventures at Zomba Plateau and Why Not to Walk at Night

When people say don't go out at night on foot in Malawi, especially if you're alone, foreign, and female, listen to them.

Last Saturday I decided to take a day trip to hike around the Zomba Plateau. However unlike all the other times I've traveled around Malawi (partially due to not being very organized) I decided to go solo and the local way - by moving death trap minibus.

I would guess minibus is the most common form of transportation; essentially it is a stripped down van that will be cramped full of as many people as possible. I have been on a minibus carrying 22 people. You feel every bump in the road and every movement your neighbor makes. Minibuses will leave from their stops when the bus is full, and people will get off and on along the way. You can ask the minibus to stop at a specific place...if you know what you're actually doing and if its actually going in that direction.

This is what a minibus looks like

This is from the back of a minibus

Getting to Zomba

I left for the minibus stop at 7:45 am, by 8 am I was off to Limbe from Blantyre which cost 150 MWK / 0.41 CAD. Once at Limbe the minibus driver directed me the next bus that would take me to Zomba, which cost 1100 MWK / 2.97 CAD. I later learned that they're not allowed to charge more than 1000 MWK / 2.70 CAD. Whoops.

To get from Blantyre to Zomba would normally take 1 hour. However the road there is under construction so it took closer to 2 hours.

By 10 am I was in the town of Zomba. Except, I didn't know where to go. In Malawi things are not the easiest for tourists - there are no big signs saying "This way to climb the plateau", and even the minibus driver didn't really know where to drop me off when I kept pointing at the plateau and said I wanted to go up it. Also, the internet is not very good or up to date for planning a trip.

However on the way I did see this sign, which I remembered was a hotel at the top of the plateau. I figured a place geared for tourists should be right for me. So I started walking back to it.


Along the way I saw a large pink bus full of nuns singing, Malawi University, and a guy who told me to "shoot him". So I did.

I walked along this road. I was very cleanly.

One part of Malawi University

I shot him.

Eventually I found the sign and started walking in the direction it pointed. And after a while I found this place whew! I was already tired.


A half day tour where you're driven around cost 16,000 MWK / 43 CAD and a half day walking tour cost 7,000 MWK / 18 CAD. I didn't have enough money on me so I opted to do the walking tour.

By 11:45 am I was all set to go!

Hiking Around Zomba

I had a guide named Christopher who studied archaeology in school and wanted to do his Masters degree. He told me lots of history but I was hungry, sweating, and tired so a lot of it has left me. In contrast I don't think he broke a sweat all day.

We hiked for 4 hours, covered approximately 15 km, and went up the plateau to an elevation of 2,600 meters. I saw a dam, some small waterfalls, a place where a trout farm is, and the hotel on the sign. If I hadn't been slow and tired we might have made it to a large waterfall.

The "Potato Path" is a steep dirt trail we took up and down the plateau. I slipped a few times and damaged some plants.

A dam. This lake supplies water to the entire city of Zomba.

Look at all that wood. People live on the plateau and chop down the trees to sell in town. Apparently the plateau is a good source of trees since the rest of the surrounding areas have already been cleared. The government is trying to control how many trees on the plateau are cut down.

Some of the view

The hotel! Thank goodness for that sign. I kind of wish I stayed a night as there was a lot I didn't see.

Night is Falling

We got back down around 4pm and the owner of the place make sure I got onto a minibus and didn't pay more than 1000 MWK / 2.70 CAD. However, things didn't seem right. The bus kept trolling the streets for more passengers and the driver had some sort of argument with a guy at the gas station. I was sitting at the front and noticed the dash indicated the gas tank was empty. Sure enough the minibus stopped and we had to hop onto another one.

By then the Malawian next to me, Emmanuel, had started talking to me. He worked at a bank in Zomba doing transaction processing and is headed to Blantyre to see family. He asked for my phone number very very quickly. The minibus we were on wasn't much better. It was probably the slowest minibus of all time, crawling along trolling for passengers. We finally made it to Limbe around 6:45 pm. The sun has set and it is dark.

Limbe bus station at night is a scary scary place. People are yelling at you in the dark about who knows what, people are very aggressive and of course nothing is organized. Apparently the minibus we were on was taking a different route and I had to find another minibus to take me to Blantyre. Luckily Emmanuel was headed the same way so he found a minibus for us to board. A man grabbed my shoulder through the minibus window.

During this I was trying to figure out where a taxi could pick me up and bring me home however: 1. I didn't really know where exactly where I'd be dropped off and if I could describe it properly ("uhh I'm in a place and people are yelling in my face") 2. I didn't want to wait around in the dark for a taxi when I could likely run back faster myself

We make to Blantyre and Emmanuel tells me I need to get off in the middle of the town and walk back to where I'm staying because the minibus is taking a different route. Since he needs to catch another nearby minibus he walks with me for a bit to make sure I know where I'm headed. Walking through town in the dark is also a scary thing. People ask you where you're going, any time someone says "hi" your mind wanders to what they mean, and people stop their cars to roll down their window and try to talk to you. I pretty much ran / jogged the way back.

Luckily I make it back without incident by 7:30 pm and Sameer (a Canadian with I work with) finds me near the entrance to our lodge and I tell him how I'm never walking alone in the dark again.

Other things
- I did end up giving Emmanuel my number because he was relatively less sketchy and was being nice by helping me figure out how to get home by minibus in the dark. He said he wanted me to tell him that I got back to my place ok. I sometimes have problems lying quickly and he definitely saw me using my phone.
- ...But then he kept calling and texting in the days after and I decided not to pick up...
- Kristina (other Canadian) suggested I tell people "I have a very strict husband" when they ask for my contact info. I will do that.
- Things look different in the dark

Posted by Analyst 04:29 Archived in Malawi Tagged night plateau dark minibus zomba Comments (0)

Being A Foreigner

For the past two days I've walked around Blantyre city - to the markets, some restaurants, and a grocery store. I've also been getting a bit lost as there are few street signs. People here are very curious about me which is understandable since I have seen almost no other non-African people, except Indians who have a number of businesses here. I get talked to or yelled at a lot, though in a friendly and curious way.

Things People Say to Me
This goes for people who are regular people and not street vendors / bus drivers. Those people just shout at me to buy things or take a ride. This generally goes from most common to least common.

- "Hi / Hello"
- "Hi sister"
- "Hi baby" Hmmm...
- "Hi madam"
- "How are you" Its not a always a question, sometimes its a courtesy
- "Konichiwa" Yea everyone thinks I'm Japanese. I don't know why.
- "Ni hao ma" This is how are you in Mandarin. I've only heard it twice so far - once from a school girl (I was impressed), and an older Malawian woman who had recently taken a trip to China.

School children will often say things in Chichewa (language spoken here by everyone) or men might shout things. I have heard at least one school child call me a "mzungu" which means white person.

Things People like to Do
Again from most common to least common

- Sideways glance and keep walking
- Shake hands
- Fist bump
- Some sort of secret handshake. Once guy wanted to do this, I messed up badly. Then he called me "his brother".

Things People Like to Ask During a Conversation
A pastor and a school girl have have started conversations with me when they realized we are walking in the same direction. I really liked talking to both of them, especially the school girl who wants to go to college or get a good job. The questions a Malawian will ask may go like this in this order, give or take a few questions.

- How are you? Pretty much everyone starts a conversation that like.
- Where are you from? Most people assume I'm Japanese. They don't know much about Canada.
- Where are you going?
- What are you doing here?
- What do you do in Canada? People don't really understand what a consulting job is, so I just say I help other companies with their problems and do a lot of work. I think people are still confused after that answer.
- How old are you? Most people think I'm 19 or 20, though a 18 year old girl here thought I was 16. I tell them its my Asian genes.
- What is your family like? Families are a lot bigger over here and family is very important to people.
- Are you married? When they find out my age, most people are really shocked that I'm not married or engaged. If you're female and in your 20s, you're considered something like a spinster if you're not married. People get married as early at 13 here in the rural areas (technically illegal but who is going to stop them), and in urban areas start getting married at 19/ 20.
- What religion are you? I am quite worried about answering this question as because almost everyone believes in some sort of God here. I think being unmarried and religion-less might be a little too much for people here. So far I've told people I'm Buddhist. Other people have recommended I tell them I'm Evangelist or Pentecostal. No one really recommends I tell them I'm atheist.

Family and religion are important here and you can tell based on what people want to know. Also, some people think my Iron Engineering ring is a wedding or engagement ring.

In Canada if someone a stranger came up and started asking you these questions it might sound creepy (just think about it for a moment). Alternatively would you go up to someone you perceive is a foreigner (its a bit hard to tell in Canada) and ask them these questions? Here is seems perfectly fine that someone start a conversation - not creepy or scary at all.

Here are some places I've been to in Blantyre

The market here is huge, this is only a small part of it. It's intimidating to take a picture in the market due to all the people.

The sketchy bridge near the market. I always fear falling through the holes into the muddy stream below.

Death traps Mini buses waiting for passengers

Part of downtown Blantyre. Do you see any street signs or lights?

Other things I've seen
- 3 Malawian men were fighting in the street. I'm not sure why. A few other men stepped in and broke up the fight.
- Twice I've seen a lot of people sitting on a large flatbed truck with signs and shouting about some sort of cause.
- There is a KFC here, no other American fast food chains. I think its because people really like fried things here.

Posted by Analyst 04:48 Archived in Malawi Tagged people conversation blantyre foreigner Comments (0)

Things that are different and confuse me

I got back into Blantyre last night and am glad to be back. We held our strategic planning workshop Monday and Tuesday in Lilongwe which I would say went reasonably well given the time we had to prepare for it. Now its a matter of writing up the thoughts and insights and revising.

On the roadshow that was the past week I had a chance to see and learn a bit more about Malawi...

Things that are different and confuse me
I'm sure there are good reasons for the following (I don't feel like getting very deep into this here), but here are some relatively superficial things about Malawi that confuse me:

Most food is fried with lots of oil - whether you're eating chicken, chambo (fish), fries, egg, or vegetables you can expect it to be fried with lots of oil. I don't really understand why, maybe its just easier and faster to cook things this way? It can't be healthy though since life expectancy is 40 and continuing to drop I suppose people do not live to see the health effects of this.

Fruit juice costs more than beer, coke, sprite, and other soft drinks - I had a strong craving to eat more healthy (spoiled North American girl), so I bought some fruit juice made from actual fruit (not water, citric acid, and colouring) that contained some Vitamin C. At a local supermarket 1L of apple juice in Blantyre costs 1020 MWK / 2.75 CAD whereas a beer or soft drink costs less than 1/2 or 1/3 of that. Maybe people just don't like drinking fruit juice, maybe importing the juice is expensive, maybe producing the juice is expensive, maybe I just happen to buy the most expensive juice possible...who knows but drinking beer and soft drinks again can't be that great for you. People really like their sweet soft drinks over here.

Attending workshops subsidizes an employee's income - When an employee attends a workshop they receive a per diem which should cover their accommodation, travel and meals. However it is usually an amount that is far greater than what is required, and people use workshops to subsidize their income. People attend a lot of workshops here. For the 7 days I spent on the road I received 94,500 MWK / 255 CAD (the amount might be lower, I wasn't counting or checking very carefully). However the places I stayed in ranged from 5,000 MWK / 13.51 CAD - 12,000 MWK / 32 CAD per night with breakfast provided and lunch sometimes covered. Meals cost on average 1,5000 MWK / 4.05 CAD. Needless to say I have quite a bit of money left over.

People travel a lot for meetings - In North America we wouldn't drive 2+ hours one way to meet with someone for 30 min. Here they do. I don't know why. It would be cheaper to pay for the air time instead of paying for the gas and the loss of productive time on the road. Maybe its a cultural thing.

Organizations spend money on multiple cars and drivers - Due to the large amount of travel people seem to do a number of the non profits here seem to have at least one car and one driver. The organization I am working for has at least 2 drivers and 3 cars and there are only 7 employees in total. In the non profit sector I am guessing this has to do with the way they're funded - perhaps donors see cars and drivers as a necessary to operating

There are people in organizations whose entire job seems to be bringing refreshments to meetings - I don't think this exists in all organizations, but in a few of the organizations I have visited there are people employed there whose entire job appears to be ensuring people have tea and hot water in the morning and water, snacks, pop, and utensils for meetings. And these aren't large organizations hosting say, Hilary Clinton either. I'm pretty capable of finding my way into people's fridges myself and wouldn't mind doing it. Though I know these positions provide employment for those who may not have many other options, it doesn't make sense from a cost perspective.

Mosquito nets have holes larger than the mosquito - Not all mosquito nets are like this. But when you make a mosquito net and the holes are larger than the mosquito, it won't be a very effective mosquito net.

Just so I make sure I include a picture as people seem to like them. This was where I stayed in Lilongwe for 7,500 MWK / 20 CAD a night, about a 10 minute drive into the main city. The price includes a breakfast of eggs, sausage and tea.

The view from my room. Most places in urban areas have gates and a guard / person manning the gate. Apparently break-ins are a problem though I have heard when break-in do occur, the criminals have bribed the guards to let them in.

Posted by Analyst 10:58 Archived in Malawi Tagged food malawi organizations confusing Comments (0)

A crazy week

This week I was in 5 cities in Malawi, had 18 meetings with stakeholders for my organization. We have a two day workshop on Monday and Tuesday which I'll need to prepare for over the weekend. Where I've been this week:

Interesting things that happened this week...

- There have been a few riots and demonstrations in Blantyre and Lilongwe due the arrest of several politicians who were accused of trying to block the current president from coming into power. I haven't actually been near any of the rioting but it illustrates one way this country is fairly fragile. Malawi became a democracy in 1993.

- One of our meetings was with a Catholic TV station in a small town. The meeting wasn't very productive but they did show us around and let me take pictures!

The studio of Luntha TV

Luntha TV staff

The entrance of Luntha TV. This building is probably by far the nicest in the town, which is mostly Catholic. Religion is very important in Malawi.

- A man in a village we were visiting said he wanted to marry me (I refused). He seemed mentally unstable. I also met 3 members of the Norwegian Peace Corps in that village

- We stayed in a pretty sketchy motel in Salima. At least I thought it was sketchy. It was 5,000 MWK / 13.51 CAD per night and I don't have pictures because I don't want to remember. Washroom was smelly, sheets had some stains, mosquitoes were flying around...

Cow crossing

- After leaving a meeting we discovered our vehicle had a flat tire, which I suspect was due to someone tampering with our car. Someone who happened to be able to fix flat tired was nearby...what a coincidence.

Flat tire

- Pippa, Sameer, Soloman, and I had dinner at an Italian restaurant call Mama Mia as Pippa is leaving for Canada tomorrow

Some facts:

- Internet can cost 600 MWK / 1.62 CAD for 100 MB
- I've had 7 beers, 3 cokes, and 2 fantas, 2 gin and tonics, and 1 other sort of alcoholic drink in the 13 days I've been here...hmm...
- I've used up 100 ml of bug repellent. However I have 2 more bottles (paranoia!)
- I've used up my roll of toilet paper I carry with me...some places just don't have toilet paper (or toilet seats)
- I've met 10 other Canadian WUSC volunteers so far

Posted by Analyst 13:16 Archived in Malawi Tagged villages travel malawi meetings Comments (0)

Safari Weekend

Last weekend Winnie, Pippa, and I went on a trip to Majete Wildlife Reserve. It was two days, all inclusive, and we participated in a afternoon/evening game drive, morning walk, boat ride, and morning game drive. I am very tanned now, I'm probably belong to a different race at this point.


Yea that was (a part of) my room


And this was my washroom, not including the outdoor shower





When we were leaving the park there was a massive thunderstorm. Imagine crossing this bridge, but with rushing water below and lightning, rain, and thunder above you. Also, you're wearing some cheap flip flops you bought at an Asian mall for $1.


I did end up with diarrhea (sorry, I need to document the bad parts of this trip as well) on the second day, it might have been due to all the food. I spent most of the second day hoping we would finish up and head back to the lodge instead of look for animals. Also, on the way back to Blantyre the car broke down and since I badly needed to go to the washroom (not diarrhea) I had the privilege of trying to hide behind a rock while doing my business...some passing locals pointed at me and yelled excitedly so I naturally pointed back at them. Other than that a good trip!

Posted by Analyst 15:43 Archived in Malawi Tagged safari majete Comments (0)

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